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Critic's Notebook: A banner year for Broadway, but …

Attendance is up and artistic moods are brighter. On the other hand, the gap between commercial and cultural is widening, trailblazing Yanks still lose out to Brits, and ticket prices are obscene.

June 05, 2011|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • The musical "The Book of Mormon" received 14 Tony nominations, including are lead actor in a play nods for Andrew Rannells, front, and Josh Gad, to the right.
The musical "The Book of Mormon" received 14 Tony nominations,… (Joan Marcus / Associated…)

Broadway has had a good year by most accounts. Box-office receipts have just been tallied, and it turns out that this has been the highest grossing season on record. Attendance is up, and artistic moods have justifiably brightened. A broad spectrum of drama, old and new (some of it genuinely challenging), has helped counterbalance the commercial froth. And "The Book of Mormon," which has the Tony for best musical in the bag, has given New York its first runaway hit in some time that actually received stellar reviews.

What kind of contrarian am I to complain? A contrarian, I guess, who's trying to sort out a hodgepodge season that, no matter how you spin it, reveals that Broadway is still in the throes of its 21st century identity crisis.

The best news is that producers, audiences, artists and critics haven't thrown in the towel, surrendering to the theme-park takeover of Times Square. Broadway hasn't become that tourist-only zone so many of us feared, and by "tourist" I'm not referring to non-NYC ZIP Codes but to a "Gone Fishing" mentality that seeks frivolous escape with a Hollywood star, a pop music catalog, a borrowed movie title or some combination of all three.

But there's something unsettled about the lowbrow-middlebrow-upper-middlebrow mix that's been attempted this year. Shows that I would never have expected to see on Broadway ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," "The Scottsboro Boys," "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo") found themselves competing for theatergoers in a Darwinian jungle that has for the last decade of multimillion-dollar spectacles encouraged the survival of the fattest.

There's no reason that the reign of bullying blockbusters shouldn't be challenged, but the gap between commercial viability and cultural esteem is only widening. The strain is nowhere more evident than with critics, who seem to be advocating more than evaluating of late — that is, when they're not second-guessing their own instincts.

Everyone has been touting this as a banner year on Broadway for new drama, but the favorite to win the Tony for best play is still an English import, "War Horse," even though the script is the weakest element of this visually enthralling puppetry experience. "Jerusalem," the other British play in contention, is memorable mainly for the commanding, relentless, outsize performance of Mark Rylance as a drug-peddling Falstaff living in a trailer on campgrounds that are like a suburbanized Forest of Arden.

These works rolled into New York as preordained award winners, though they're not necessarily the best plays on Broadway this season. My Tony vote would be for Stephen Adly Guirgis' "The Mother… With the Hat," a work that might not be as ambitious as its transatlantic rivals but that has a caustic poetry of remarkable originality, curve-ball supporting characters and an audience-grabbing vitality focused on the emotional stakes of the protagonist (Bobby Cannavale), a recovering addict with a jealous temper that turbo-charges the plot. But in good theatrical times and bad, our subservience to the English stage is the one constant.

Some might chalk it up to Anglophilia, but this is no "Masterpiece Classic" phenomenon. London simply affords playwrights unparalleled opportunities to develop their craft in front of large audiences; consequently, dramatists there tend to write for crowds, not coteries.

Our nonprofit theaters were intended to serve as a substitute for Britain's state-funded model, and the system, though faltering, occasionally comes through. "Good People," David Lindsay-Abaire's Tony-nominated drama, which was produced by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, has been widely hailed as a homegrown success. The play, which explores the subjects of class and race between former high school sweethearts from South Boston, strikes me as rather conventional in its plodding, realistic style. But the work gains in interest as Frances McDormand, playing a middle-age down-and-out "Southie," barges into the affluent home of an ex-boyfriend (Tate Donovan), who's now a successful physician married to a well-educated, socially poised African American woman (Reneé Elise Goldsberry), who looks on this intruder from her husband's disadvantaged past with compassion.

"Good People" has a four-square construction and a message that's subtle but not too subtle. It's an exemplary institutional theater play that's tailor-made to appeal to a cross-section of intelligent theatergoers. But such work runs the risk of seeming retrograde. Familiarity of form breeds familiarity of content. Lindsay-Abaire may have developed into a more assured writer since his early days as a purveyor of eccentric farces ("Fuddy Meers," "Kimberly Akimbo"), but he's traded his idiosyncratic adventurousness for mainstream acceptance (a strategy that earned him a Pulitzer for "Rabbit Hole").

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